The Brooklyn Nets waltzed into 123 points in a Game 5 they didn't take seriously until seven minutes remained on Tuesday night. Their offense is ludicrous. It's their defense that could cost them the title.
The Nets cannot treat the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals the same way they did the undermanned Boston Celtics in the opening round. Brooklyn posted the greatest offensive rating in NBA history, even with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving playing only eight games together, but the Bucks' offense finished within a point per 100 possessions of the Nets, and their defense is clearly better.
Milwaukee stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday should both make the All-Defensive first team. Bucks teammate Brook Lopez made the second team last season. Khris Middleton and P.J. Tucker have both been fringe All-Defense candidates in their careers. There may be no better trio than Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday to counter Durant, Harden and Irving, and it still might not make any difference.
"They're a great team, and they're tough to deal with, but I'm not thinking about it like that," Durant told reporters after beating Boston. "We respect everybody on their team. We know exactly what they bring to the table, but we're just going to go out there and have fun playing the game of basketball. We're going to challenge each other. You know they're going to challenge us and vice versa, so may the best team win."
The Nets just scored 128 points per 100 possessions in their five-game set with the Celtics, somehow more efficient than Antetokounmpo — an absolute freight train in the open court — was in transition this year (1.23 points per possession). That's absurd, even if the Celtics were without two of their best defenders in Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams. Brooklyn registered 50/43/91 shooting splits as a team in five games.
"I'm more concerned with our defense," Durant conceded midway through the series.
Milwaukee can hang its hat on how competitive Boston was in all but one game. The Celtics led two of their four losses at the half, and the Bucks are bound to keep games close far longer. Without Brown for the entire series and missing Williams and Kemba Walker for the final two games — all members of Boston's most potent offensive lineup — the Celtics still scored 115.9 points per 100 possessions in the series.
Think about that. With Jayson Tatum as its sole creator, Boston's offense operated at a top-seven level, far more effective against the Nets than they were throughout a disappointing season. The Celtics played stretches with Jabari Parker, Evan Fournier, Payton Pritchard, Romeo Langford and Grant Williams on the floor together, and they held their own against lineups boasting at least one Hall of Famer at all times.
"We showed when we're totally together on both ends of the court that we can be a handful, no matter who's in the game," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said on his media conference call on Tuesday night.
You wonder whether Brooklyn can find an extra gear defensively. The Nets did come out in Game 1 with a strong effort, limiting Boston to 93 points. There is a chance they saw how little they needed to try on that end against the Celtics and acted accordingly. It is hard for everyone to flip that switch back on collectively.
Consider this: The Celtics shot 34% on 53 wide-open 3-pointers through the first four games of the series, and then shot 28% on 40 total 3-point attempts in Game 5. The Bucks created 19.1 wide-open looks from 3 per game and hit them at a 41% clip in the regular season. The Nets are going to have their hands full.
Boston hunted its choice of porous Brooklyn defenders. Blake Griffin was a turnstile. Irving, Harden and Landry Shamet weren't much better, if at all. Tatum scored 1.31 points per possession in isolation on the series. Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton are about to have a field day working opposite the Nets.
Tristan Thompson and the Celtics owned the offensive glass, as did the Bucks in their first-round series.
Brooklyn's defense was so bad the Nets might have felt the absence of Jeff Green on that end more than any team ever has. His foot is not slated to be reevaluated until after the start of the conference semifinals.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn is facing a Milwaukee team that is firing on all cylinders defensively. They led the league in that regard last season, and like everyone else took their foot off the gas during this season's condensed schedule. In their four-game first-round sweep of the Miami Heat, the Bucks were beyond sharp, allowing just 95.3 points per 100 possessions (or the equivalent of the vaunted 2004 Detroit Pistons).
None of it may matter. Durant, Harden and Irving are that good offensively. They have Joe Harris, the NBA's most efficient 3-point shooter in two of the last three seasons, as a safety valve. Griffin, a six-time All-Star, is an afterthought. That lineup scored 185 points in 64 minutes together in five games against the Celtics or 138.1 points per 100 possessions. That is unconscionable, and it will have to be to mask their defense.
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